Nov 25, 2019
The following is from a speech by Gary Walkowicz, long-time UAW militant, at the November SPARK public meeting.
In the days since the strike by GM workers ended, we have seen articles written and posted that questioned whether the 6-week strike was worth it for the GM workers. The articles expressed doubts about what the strike achieved. They repeated claims that the strike was called by UAW leaders only to distract attention from the charges of corruption against some union leaders. They said that GM workers didn’t get enough to make up for what they lost.
Seeing these negative articles was not a surprise to GM workers, because during the strike itself they saw firsthand how some of the media and others tried to demoralize the GM workers and weaken the strike. Some of the media went to the picket lines and tried to get GM workers to say that they didn’t want to be on strike, that they were suffering too much. But much as they tried, they had a hard time finding any GM workers to say this. Because that is not how most GM workers felt about their strike.
We can expect that we will continue to see propaganda about the strike and about the union. Coming from the media, coming from politicians, coming from those trying to use right-to-work laws to convince workers to leave the union. They will continue to try to convince workers that the whole union is corrupt.
I say the union is not corrupt. A few union leaders are not the union. The union is all of us. The GM workers showed what the union is. We are not corrupt. And we can be the ones to police our own union.
If there are a few union leaders who put money in their own pocket, is anyone surprised? We live in a society filled with corruption. We see it every single day. Businessmen, bankers, politicians all the way to the White House are corrupt, pocketing money every day. And they are taking a lot more money than anything that happened in the UAW.
But people in the government and the media were using charges of corruption against UAW leaders in order to weaken the strike.
Why were they attacking the strike? They were attacking the strike because the strike was a threat to the interests of the corporate bosses and all those who defend the bosses.
The fact that workers themselves stayed on strike for 40 days was a threat to the whole capitalist class. It was something we haven’t seen in decades, a strike in auto, in heavy industry, which is still the center of the productive economy.
After years of concessions, the striking autoworkers certainly did not gain back all that they have lost. They did not put an end to all 2-tier pay and all temporary jobs.
But after 14 straight years of giving up major concessions and after almost 40 years of continued takeaways, the strike by GM workers stopped the company from taking even more. The GM workers didn’t give up anything major, including their health care, which is a big deal. And they gained a few things, small steps toward full pay and permanent jobs for 2-tier and temporary workers. Those gains might not seem like much, but they go against the tide of everything happening in the economy today. The strike took up issues important to the whole working class. And it meant something that many of the higher paid, higher seniority GM workers on the picket lines said they were fighting, not for themselves, but for the lower paid, younger workers. That’s the real meaning of solidarity. That’s why the strike was important.
The GM strike was the longest companywide strike in the auto industry in 49 years. It comes after a long period in which workers throughout the economy have been quiet and have not been fighting for their own interests. The last decades have seen few strikes. And, as a direct result, the corporate bosses had a free hand as they set about to reduce the standard of living of the whole working class.
Every statistic shows how things have gotten worse over the past 40 years. But we don’t need statistics to look at our lives and those of our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and we can see how things have gotten worse. Lower-paying jobs, when you can get one. Schools, roads, infrastructure falling apart. More desperation, more crime.
After years of things getting worse and nobody fighting back, the mood in the working class has been that nothing can be done. Most believed that we can’t stand up for ourselves,
But the strike by the GM workers broke through that. They did something important. They showed that some workers are ready to fight. They acted because they believe that by fighting you can accomplish something.
And they did. They brought other workers out to join their fight.
Many other workers recognized the importance of this strike, and not only supported it, they joined the picket lines. Workers from Ford and Chrysler were on the picket lines. And so were workers from many other workplaces. They also brought food, water and money. In some cases, this support was organized by union leaders from other workplaces. Many workers also just came on their own. They didn’t need to be told to go to the picket lines. They knew by class instinct that “Their Fight Is Our Fight.” This was an example of real workers’ “solidarity.”
If other workers looked at the GM strike and saw that “Their Fight Is Our Fight,” it is because millions of other workers are facing the same problems that the GM workers were fighting against. Losing jobs, 2, 3, and 4-tier pay, temporary work, paying more for their health care. Other workers have a reason to fight, just like the GM workers did. The strike by the GM workers showed other workers that a fight is possible. So the question is, will other workers take up the same fight?
That’s the real issue. If no one else picks up the fight, we will continue to go backwards.
There was a period from WWII through the early 1970s where the working class in this country regularly went on strike and made gains in their standard of living. It was a period where the capitalist class was expanding their ability to make profits around the world and they were willing to give the workers something to keep their fights from getting even bigger.
But things changed in the early 1970s. The capitalists’ economy went into a long-term crisis, which was made even worse by depressions they caused themselves, like the crisis of speculation on the U.S. dollar in 1970, the savings and loan crisis in 1986, the high tech bubble bursting in 2000, and the mortgage crisis of 2008. The capitalists could now only maintain and expand their wealth by reducing the standard of living of the whole working class. And the standard of living of the working class began to be steadily reduced, year after year. Low pay and lost jobs is now a cornerstone of the capitalists’ whole economy.
A fight by any group of workers is going to be a fight against, not only their own bosses, but it will be a fight against the whole capitalist class. It is going to take a bigger fight, many more workers fighting together, a fight of the whole working class, to start to solve these problems.
We will have to do what we did before, like in the 1930s, where the working class seemed to be fighting everywhere at the same time. A factory occupation by autoworkers in Flint spread not only to rubber workers in Ohio but to department store workers in Detroit.
We will have to do what we did in the 1950s and 60s, when movements of the black population for democratic rights spread throughout the South, from Montgomery to the Mississippi Delta to New Orleans to Memphis. When rebellions in the big cities spread from Los Angeles in 1965 to Newark and Detroit in 1967 to almost every city in 1968.
Workers will have to challenge the bosses’ assumptions that they should make a profit off our labor. We should take the fruits of our labor, every penny of it, to use for our needs, for the needs of everyone in the society. The greed of a few multi-billionaires should not come before the needs of the people who do all the work.
Workers fighting for their own needs can open the door for everyone. That’s why we saw all those small business people from restaurants and party stores bring support to the GM picket lines. They saw that they were dependent on what the workers did.
The working class has the power to make such a fight. But that fight doesn’t just spring up like that. It has to start somewhere. And it has to spread. The strike by GM workers does not automatically lead to a bigger fight. But they opened the door.
I likened it to a 15-round fight, and the GM strike was just the first round.
The GM workers took the fight as far as they felt they could. Now it is up to the rest of the working class to start Round Two.